Mort Walker, 1923–2018
The cartoonist who chuckled at Army life
Mort Walker was never short of material for his comic strip Beetle Bailey. Drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, Walker often referred to his military service as four years of “free research.” The chronically lazy Pvt. Beetle Bailey and the other inept inhabitants of Camp Swampy were inspired in part by Walker’s own experiences with the absurdities of Army life. When the war was over, Walker was tasked with guarding an ordnance depot in Italy where binoculars, watches, and other unwanted military supplies were being crushed by tanks. “My job was to see no one stole anything before it was destroyed,” he later said. “I began to realize that Army humor writes itself.”
Raised in Kansas City, Mo., “Walker knew he wanted to be a cartoonist at the age of 3,” said The Washington Post. By 12, he was publishing his cartoons in pulp magazines such as Inside Detective; by 15, he had his own strip in The Kansas City Star. Walker started drawing what would become Beetle Bailey after the war, initially featuring Beetle as a slovenly fraternity member named Spider. It was a flop, and King Features Syndicate considered dropping the strip after just six months.
Following the outbreak of the Korean War, “the syndicate suggested Beetle join the Army,” said the Associated Press. The Tokyo edition of the military newspaper Stars & Stripes dropped Beetle Bailey in 1954, fearing it “would encourage disrespect for officers.” But media coverage of the ban led more than 100 newspapers to add the strip. Walker would draw the comic for 68 years, the longest tenure of any American cartoonist. “Most people are sort of against authority,” he said. “Here’s Beetle always challenging authority. I think people relate to it.”